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Hall of Fame weekend full of stories, camaraderie

When baseball's greats come together, a good time is had by all

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The more visits to this lovely burg in the lush green mountains of upstate New York, the more Hall of Fame induction weekends attended, the more personal the experiences. The Hall of Fame weekend isn't sightseeing so much as it is people watching -- watching folks appreciate the celebrities they see and think they see, and appreciating their reactions.

It is the middle-aged man wearing a Dodgers' No. 53 uniform -- a nod to Don Drysdale, and nearly being overcome with joy when a slender, tanned and gray-haired man, dressed in golf shirt and shorts crosses his path. Faux-Drysdale is certain he sees Sandy Koufax and accelerates his pace only to realize the other man bears a striking resemblance to Sandy but that he probably never threw a perfect game.

It is Goose Gossage and Rickey Henderson embracing in the gallery of the Hall on Saturday night. When they were teammates or opponents, Gossage thought little of the man. Now they are Cooperstown comrades, and they enjoy each other more than Gossage ever had anticipated.

Henderson is a most popular figure among Hall of Famers. Those whose inductions preceded his had their doubts. He won them over with smiles, handshakes and a genuine understanding of "how cool all this is." Rickey gets it. He used the word "humbled" in his acceptance speech three years ago. That surprised and pleased his new fraternity brothers. The doubts are gone.

Tommy Lasorda shares wonderful anecdotes everywhere his goodwill campaign takes him. No one is quite certain what percentage of what he says is apocryphal. And no one really cares, other than those collecting stories for books.

Phil Niekro tells dozens of sensational jokes, each longer than the previous one. Ten would fill a chapter in a book. He is outside the Otesaga Hotel, the headquarters for the Hall of Famers, Sunday night, looking for an audience. He joins three men seated at a circular outdoor bar that surrounds a raised fire pit that is 20 feet in diameter. He speaks, they listen -- for seven minutes. And then their roaring laughter cuts through the cool evening air.

Bent at their waists, they stomp around as men do when the punchline has the power of Frazier's left hook. They re-assemble quickly and ask for more. Nine minutes later comes another outburst. And this time, Niekro bends, stomps and laughs with them. He holds his audience for 20 minutes more, then circles the bar to say his good nights.

Dennis Eckersley sees Niekro and laughs only because he recalls a punchline.

"He's our entertainment," Eck said.

* * * *

Much earlier Sunday, the Otesaga dining room is crowded with multiple generations of baseball people. The scene at one table touches the heart of anyone who recalls baseball in the Bronx in the 1950s. The Fords -- Joan and Whitey -- are joined by another couple (baseball outsiders) and then by a muscled and broad-shouldered man. It's Larry Berra, son of the more famous Larry Berra. He and the Fords embrace. Their affection for each other and the missing masked man is clear.

"I tried to get my dad to come," Yogi's oldest son said. "But it's tough for him. He said no."

Others wonder whether the former Yankees catcher ever will grace the induction ceremonies again. Whitey had every intention of attending, but decided against it late in the morning. His eyes still have that wonderful gleam, the rest of him lacks energy and strength.

Billy Williams and his wife sit so peacefully in white rocking chairs on the Otesaga veranda. The lake and the day are beautiful.

"We like it out here," Williams said. "Very restful."

But he breaks the peace to talk baseball, story after story. His seemingly have more veracity than Lasorda's.

"Tommy might stretch it a little," Williams said.

He confirms at least the first half of a tale delivered years ago by his Cubs manager Leo Durocher. It is true, Williams says, that his sweet swing once put a baseball through the window of a second-story apartment beyond the right-field stands of Wrigley Field.

The home run shattered a lamp inside in the window, and, yes, the Cubs did reimburse the apartment occupant for the window and the lamp.

"Anything else beyond that is Leo's imagination," Williams said.

Durocher had an epilogue for the story.

"She liked the new lamp a lot," he said. "And she wanted a matching set. So she put one of the old ones in the window and waited for Billy to break that one and for the Cubs to pay up. He broke the second one that year and a third one the next year."

When he heard The Lip's addendum, Williams laughed as if Niekro just had delivered a punchline.

"Every story we tell up here gets a little bigger and better each year," he says. "Leo went over the top. I wasn't that accurate with my homers."

* * * *

There are tales, and there are tales. And someday, a decade or two from now, what Derek Jeter does may seem apocryphal, but it will be merely extraordinary. So it was Sunday afternoon during the rain that delayed the induction ceremonies that word of Jeter's latest moment reached the media workroom. The first-pitch home run he hit in the first inning of his first game back startled no one in the room.

Extraordinary is commonplace for the Yankees' captain. The home run was merely the latest entry in his remarkable resume. It prompted a "Did he really?" sense in the room. Of course he did. It's what Jeter does.

As the writers watched the replays of the home run and discussed Jeter's genius, you could envision them putting checks next to names on some future Hall of Fame ballot and not stopping to assess Jeter's candidacy one last time. They merely cast the vote for what already is a foregone conclusion.

Marty Noble is a reporter for